Today across America citizens go to the polls to choose a select group from among themselves to make governmental decisions on their behalf. We cast votes for a special few not only because there are so many governmental decisions to be made, but also because these decisions require dedicated, specialized study. The institution of voting exists for citizens to choose persons whose values, intelligence, and discipline citizens can best trust to make those decisions. They, then, make national (or lower jurisdictions) judgments in the form of laws within which the governmental apparatus and citizens themselves must behave. The critical separation of roles is held in place according to a foundation document (the Constitution)—the stability of which is protected by a difficult amendment process.
As is true with all human invention, there are parts of the process that can go awry, no matter how genius its conception. The first, of course, is that the design of assigned roles and rules are themselves not up to the gargantuan task. Reaching a decision with a group of only two—as in a marriage, business partnership, or simply co-workers deciding where to go to lunch—is frequently difficult, much less in a town of 5,000 or a nation of 320,000,000. Yet decisions must be made. When not made explicitly, many if not most decisions are nevertheless implicitly made by non-verbal behavior itself. The latter is not subjected to the same level of scrutiny and debate as the former, thereby enabling deciders to appear blameless for the outcome.
All of which is to say that persons of unparalleled care, wisdom, integrity, and intelligence are necessities in making the decision system work well. When all the roles in a system are appropriately designed, those at the top are charged with the longest term, highest policy breadth decisions. Not only must they understand what to decide and what to leave to others, the citizenry must understand as well. For example, as long as some body of citizens is calling for the Congress to intervene in, say, a Terri Schiavo case, it is hard for members of Congress to stay appropriately out of the matter.
Of course, if the elected officials don’t understand the principle themselves, it takes very little pressure for them to be drawn in. In fact, the political payoff renders it inviting for officials themselves to lead the way into inappropriateness. Each such elected official behavior damages the decision system and, thus, the republic, probably more than do most instances of treason.
If for no other reason, each official participating in damaging behavior like this should be eliminated from office. But, of course, that won’t happen. Voters, by and large, neither look for that level of integrity, know it is critical, nor would vote against its most extreme violators. Unless one is prepared to say that massive expenditures on political ads do not make a difference, voters can be counted on to be, well, in a word, stupid. Pity that the “greatest country in the world” haughty refrain fails to notice the shallow, fatuous focus of political campaigning.
Our country faces huge issues: global climate change, massive income gaps, spread of Islamic terrorism, failure of public education, effects of the Citizens United ruling, and more. Yet these have not been the focus of current political campaigning. Politicians mouth politically correct clichés and platitudes. They summon up pious statements about immediate, minor issues in the news just yesterday, as if demonstrating voters to be dupes marks a mature democracy. It is as if campaigning against waste and corruption is even distantly related to doing anything about mis-governing if elected; it is as if campaigning against high unemployment is related to solving the problem; and so forth. Voters watch and agree with ads by their “own side” and find fault with ads by the “other side” even when they are equally culpable. We vote, in part, on which candidate can show the cleverest frivolity; the search for statesmen and stateswomen is embarrassingly missing.
I voted in this election, but not happily. I had no joy of participating in a time-honored, proud institution. I did not do so with assurance, or even hope, that candidates I voted for are fit to govern. I did so because, while candidates’ lack of integrity is bad, candidates’ lack of integrity plus no voting would be worse. Or maybe, it was just to hang onto a shred of optimism in a system where even shreds are hard to find.
Can I say America is the world’s greatest nation? Except in military and economic might, no. In fact, in comparison to the promise it once had due to brilliant, system-building founders seizing fresh, 18th century opportunities, it is a colossal disappointment. The conduct of our elections, then officials’ performance after having won, are a study in inanity, not the “shining city on a hill” we’ve had the chance to be, and arguably what we actually were two centuries ago.
Maybe, just maybe, the nations you consider to be greater than the United States owe their greatness to the United States’ military saving them from annihilation by their enemies.
Brilliant. Your analysis and your articulation of our shared dilemma are on the mark.
Thank you for this exceptional piece.
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